African Italian literature (4749 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Anna Ciamparella (Florida SouthWestern State College)
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African Italian literature is the body of literary artifacts produced in Italy by authors of African descent. The tradition emerged in the 1990s to document the trials that African immigrants faced in the Bel Paese. The penultimate decade of the twentieth century marked the beginning of the African migratory waves to Europe, and Italy, whose southernmost point Lampedusa is only seventy miles from the Tunisian coast, became one of the most desirable destinations for African immigrants willing to leave those regions particularly afflicted by the aftermath of the decolonization process that began after WWII and ended in the second half of the 1970s. As they made the migrant experience visible, the first African Italian works represented an unexpected turn in the artistic scenario of the time, which until then gave little or no space to this type of narrative. Recognizing the importance that this literary enterprise had on Italian culture at large, literary scholars now agree with Alessandra Di Maio’s statement that the year 1990 “mark[ed] the beginning of an Italian literature of migration” (90). Christopher Hogarth, underscoring the significance of this new genre for the Italian tradition, writes that the first generation of African immigrants in Italy were disappointed with the way in which Italian mainstream culture represented them and thus “began to make their voices heard through literary production” (166).

Because African Italian authors ascribed a specific social function to their works, initially the aesthetic quality of their writing was hardly ever evaluated. African Italian production was appreciated almost exclusively for its memorialist approach, which, “symboliz[ing] the essence of [a] social encounter in a nascent form” (Di Maio 92), started shaping African Italian literature as a mere “sociological account of the Italian immigrant phenomenon” (Di Maio 93). Virtually occupying the same bookstore shelf – as these texts did share similar themes and were all edited by native speakers – African Italian writers were known for their autobiographical narratives in 1990 and 1991. In this period, the Italian readership became acquainted with texts such as Io, venditore di elefanti [I Was an Elephant Salesman] (1990) by Pap Khouma (Senegal), edited by the journalist Oreste Pivetta, Immigrato [Immigrant] (1990) by Salah Methnani (Tunisia), tuned to a proper Italian style by Mario Fortunato, Chiamatemi Alì [Call Me Alì] (1991) by Mohamed Bouchane [Morocco], edited by Carla De Girolamo and Daniele Miccione, and La promessa di Hamadi [Hamadi’s Promise] (1991) by Saidou Moussa Ba (Senegal), edited by Alessandro Micheletti. As one can immediately notice, Italian writers of African descent were not alone in contributing to the formation of the migrant phase in African Italian literature, but their editors, accompanying their literary journeys from beginning to end, also played a crucial role in the preparation of the manuscripts.

These autobiographical narratives were the concerted effort of more than one individual. In regard to Khouma’s and Methnani’s narrative, William Boelhower suggests that, whereas “there is no way of knowing from the texts themselves just how ‘friendly’ the editing was […], [f]or us, this complicates, rather than simplifies, the autobiography’s tale” (220). The editing undertaken in these memoirs is interpreted by Patricia Ceola in yet another way; she imagines the narrator literally uttering the story to the editor(s) who preserved the tone, rhythm, and style of the original account (110). Graziella Parati describes another possible variance of the writer/editor partnership with regards to Bouchane’s book, suggesting that Bouchane originally wrote his book in French and Arabic, and that subsequently his Italian teacher Carla De Girolamo helped him translate the text into Italian (173). This anecdote implies that Bouchane’s text was not necessarily created for an Italian audience but ended up seeking this readership virtually perchance.

Although these details might be viewed simply as sketches of ordinary publishing practices, they allow us to grasp the complexity of the transcultural and transnational nature of African Italian literature, which remains unique within the experience of the African diaspora. It even gives the concept of the African dispersal a new breadth, for in the African Italian context, the term “African” has a more inclusive ring to it and identifies not only that which relates to black culture – an interpretation prevailing in the Anglo-American tradition proper – but also bespeaks the essence of other African communities. In the Anglo-American framework, the idea of “blackness” is fixed on the adjective “African” and often used as a critical paradigm to understand the experience of black Africans (especially those from western and central Africa) and their diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas. In Europe, however, the geographical coordinates constituting the several African demographics are often rearranged, and as it stands in the African Italian community, “African” designates a much more comprehensive category and comprises authors hailing from the Maghreb as well. In other words, in order to understand the African Italian production, it is necessary to interconnect the various African ethnicities to which African Italian writers belong.

To fathom the existence of a category suitable to describe the African Italian experience, one has to imagine that these linkages are a given – that they exist a priori. From an Anglo-American perspective, the attempt to outline the characteristics of African Italian culture may seem inaccurate, even naïve perhaps. However, broadening the contours implied in “African” should make sense in the European context where, as Allison Crumly Deventer and Dominic Thomas posit, “blackness” has a complicated history and “is often used to describe Africans, Caribbeans, and South Asians” (338). In Italy, more specifically, in reference to immigrants, “blackness” assumes yet other connotations: in fact, regardless of their actual provenance, African émigrés are generally called marocchini (Moroccans) and vu cumprà (would you buy?), a phrase “invented by Italians to address immigrants while constructing for them a flat and marginalized identity” (Di Maio 97). Above all, vu cumprà indicates the type of job most illegal immigrants from Africa hold but avoids saying anything about their specific birthplace and/or ethnicity.

At the beginning of the new millennium, African Italian writers not only focused on their journeys to southern Europe but also tried to illustrate their compatriots’ perspectives on life. This is the case, for instance, of Il mio viaggio della speranza [My Hopeful Journey] published by Bay Mademba (Senegal) in 2006. More an autobiographical novella than a novel, the text narrates the author’s various ventures in reaching Italy while also, albeit briefly, illustrating the emotional and cultural reaction of the Senegalese to the complicated journeys to Europe that many undertake despite the danger of relying on immigrant smugglers. Mademba’s text reveals that people in Senegal are divided about immigration. In certain rural villages women are encouraged to marry an immigrant, a perspective implying that in Senegal immigration might be the only chance individuals have to ameliorate their life. Thus, Mademba writes that “[l]’emigrazione è entrata nella cultura senegalese, il valore di un uomo si misura sovente sulla sua capacità di andarsene lontano, non importa dove” (“[e]migration has become inherent to the Senegalese culture. The value of a man is often measured by the potential means he has to go far away, it does not matter where”) (60). In Senegal, however, there also exists another approach to immigration. For instance, according to the German media Deutsche Welle, people in Thiaroye-sur-mer, aware of how dangerous the journey to Europe is, try to dissuade immediate relatives and friends from leaving the country. Ali Kouri Diop, whose son drowned in the Atlantic Ocean while aboard an immigrant smuggling boat, founded the ACRFAT Support Group to help people cope with tragedies like his. Mademba writes that the female population of Thiaroye-sur-mer no longer goes down to the beach: the image of the ocean reminds these women of the onerous cost of immigration (62).

The numerous shipwrecks that occurred in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean must have profoundly impacted African Italian writers who, in the early 2000s, besides writing about their survival experience, wanted to render a new image of the African émigré. This second moment of the African Italian experience could be considered a renaissance, for it started encompassing the idea of cultural assertion in Italian society. At the turn of the new millennium, African Italian literature came to be infused with themes such as cultural hybridity and misplacement, diasporic relationship with the motherland, and representations of Italy as a racist country that refuses to accept the presence of Africans immigrants in its territories. African Italian writers began to debunk racial stereotypes and an inflammatory rhetoric in both social interactions and national discourse. According to some, the stance against illegal immigration taken by the current Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini has helped to reinforce racist sentiments. For example, Igiaba Scego (born in Italy and of Somali origin) writes that the summer of 2018 “has been terrifying for anyone in Italy with black skin. Under the government of the populist Five Star Movement and far-right Lega, women and men are increasingly finding themselves targets of violence” (“Italy is My Country”).

Social and political discrimination in contemporary Italy has encouraged African Italian writers – including also authors such as Gabriella Ghermandi (Ethiopia), Jadelin Gangbo (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Mohsen Melliti (Tunisia), and Yvan Sanyet (Cameroon) – to identify and address various forms of exclusion of “the Other” as they unfold in the peninsula. Often, these authors have personally experienced their allotted share of racial discrimination. To give an example of these ordinary episodes of racism, Khouma declares in an article written in one of the major Italian newspapers, La Repubblica, that his Italian citizenship is often questioned. As he recalls, one day, needing a copy of a document, he went to Milan’s town hall only to find that one of the clerks was confused about Khouma’s legal status in the country. The author writes that even after he showed the clerk his Italian passport and ID, the latter, fearing he was still undocumented, also wanted to see Khouma’s working permit, which, obviously, being a naturalized citizen, he did not have.

By the 2000s, as this type of predicament escalated, most African Italian writers started to show a strong interest in creating an outlet through which to express their ethnicity. They therefore began to discuss the aftermath, one can say, of the migrant experience, depicting in their compositions a real or imagined world where African and Italian affairs, in one way or another, interconnected. This broader literary scenario included novels such as Scego’s Adua (2015). Adua, the central character of the story, dreams of becoming an actress but, allured by the false promises of an Italian director, becomes instead a victim of sexual slavery. Scego characterizes the director as someone who bought Adua at a sale price in East Africa. Reminiscent of the Atlantic slave trade, Adua’s plot brings to the fore one of the darkest sides of the possible connections between African and Italian civilization.

Focusing on the theme of cultural interconnections, other African Italian authors have been rather interested in showing that, in certain cases, cultural assimilation might not necessarily lead one to give up his or her culture in order to translate his or her values into another tradition; on the contrary, an individual can synthesize both native and hosting cultures and even engender a successful form of cosmopolitanism. Some verses of Chidi Uzoma (Nigeria) can be interpreted in this auspicious light, allowing the author to express universal sentiments. Thus, for instance, in his poem “Aspettando” (“Waiting”), Uzoma writes: “Aspettando / aspettando / si vince la noia” (“Waiting / waiting / we win over boredom”) (57). Structured as a hermetic poem (the composition seems to have been inspired by the poetics of modernist poets such as Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale), the elusive meaning of the verse achieved with a few strokes of Uzoma’s pen can be interpreted as representing a sensation common to humankind.

Other African Italian writers have preferred to depict (contrasting) images of Africa, allowing them to obtain genuine insights on African societies. In 2006, the same year in which Mademba’s book was published, Aminata Fofana (Guinea) saw the publication of her first novel La luna che mi seguiva [The Moon Following Me]. The story revolves around a little girl named Saduwa who inherits the magical powers of her shaman grandfather. At birth she is chosen to follow her grandfather’s footsteps and, when the man dies, she is left with the daunting task of protecting her family and village from malevolent spirits. Fofana’s book represents an African version of the “coming of age” theme. It also deals briefly with the practice of female genital mutilation to which, in the book, Saduwa and other girls are subjected. It all happens in a few paragraphs in the chapter titled “L’ombra del passato” (“The Shadow of the Past”). As it is narrated from a first-person point of view (that of Saduwa), the event is portrayed almost nonchalantly. The entire ordeal gives only a “humid and sticky sensation” to the young protagonist. In Saduwa’s eye the mutilation has little importance; she has more important things to focus on due to her social position in the village. Also, as a good female member of African society, she stoically and properly accepts the form of prepackaged womanhood her culture imposes upon her. Ultimately, La luna che mi seguiva sheds light on African gender roles and spiritual practices, and through Saduwa’s perspective, Fofana almost normalizes those African social practices largely rejected by Western cultures.

Other works of African Italian literature offer alternative images of the African continent. Khouma’s second book Nonno Dio e gli spiriti danzanti (Grandfather God and the Dancing Spirits), published in 2005 after a silence of fifteen years from his autobiographical novel, represents a clear shift in migrant literature by debunking the traditional figure of the African immigrant to Italy and criticizing African society. Øg, the protagonist of the book, is a nurse employed at a hospital in Milan. Returning for a vacation to a fictional place located somewhere in the Sahel, a biogeographic zone between northern and sub-Saharan Africa, he becomes the victim of the mauvaises langues (gossipers) who give him a bad reputation ‘at home’ and who eventually facilitate his conviction for a crime that perhaps he did not commit. The setting of the story is surreal: absurd events occur almost naturally in Africa, as when, at the airport, Øg deals with a custom officer asking him to show the purchase receipt of an old stereo he owns. The unpleasant situation ends when Øg agrees to pay the officer 15,000 West African CFA francs. Despite the unusual, sometimes even tragic, events befalling Øg, he remains a decent man throughout the text. Although the novel ends with Øg handed over to Italian authorities for the crime that he allegedly committed in Milan, this character represents a new generation of African Italians who try to assert themselves in Italy.

This sentiment inspires the poems of Ndjock Ngana (Cameroon) as well, but in them one also finds a strong diasporic content. His compositions – some of which are written in his local language Basaa, spoken by the large Basaa community in Cameroon and by peoples occupying other African regions – often depict Africa as a crucible of humanity. In the opening of the poem “L’Africano”, Ngana finds inspiration in an idealized grandeur of Africa. Thus, in the first stanza the speaker says:

Scendo dal raggio di sole,
sgorgo dalla roccia solida,
parlo la lingua della vita […] (17)

[I hike down from a sunbeam,
I flow from solid stone,
I speak the language of life] […]

Here the line “scendo dal raggio di sole” (“I hike down from a sunbeam”) immediately reveals the speaker’s provenance: a lively place represented by the sun itself and situated above us all. To give a sense of the place’s immense height, the speaker has to “hike down” from it. This lofty rendition of Ngana’s native place is reiterated two verses later, where the speaker says that he “parl[a] la lingua della vita” (“speaks the language of life”) (17). If Africa speaks the language of life, Ngana’s ancestral land symbolizes the beginning of all civilizations.

This idea is restated again in the poem “La nostra Africa” (“Our Africa”) where Africa is now clearly imagined as the land where “visse il primo uomo / da dove partì la civiltà / rinascerà l’umanità” (“the first man lived / where civilization began / humanity will be born again”) (31). In the poet’s imagination, Africa is the place where the first human being appeared (an observation that, of course, is historically accurate) and from where a new humankind perhaps will arise. Ngana’s poem reminds us of the poem “Negro” by the African American author Langston Hughes, which reads as follows: “I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black / Black like the depths of my Africa” (24). The composition clearly indicates the speaker’s belonging to black Africa and the greatness comprising his Africa (“the depths of my Africa”). The brief comparison shows that Ngana’s writing does indeed belong to the African diaspora. To Ngana, African tradition and culture are so important that he founded in Rome an organization called Kel’Lam – which in the Basaa language means “a nice day”. As he put it in an interview with Afrocult, Kel’Lam wants to offer African immigrants an environment where they can immediately feel ‘at home’ (“Afrocult. Rencontre avec Ndjock Ngana”).

Thus doing, Ngana recovers his culture by deploying the creative energy his nostalgia produces to build a special African place in the Roman urban setting. Whereas Ngana uses Rome to help other Africans feel ‘at home,’ Jorge Canifa Alves (Cabo Verde) – an author of exceptional talent who in his Il bacio della sfinge (The Sphinge’s Kiss) shows an unusual mastery of different writing skills, but who so far has received little attention from literary scholars – characterizes Rome as the actual source of nostalgia. In one of his extremely well-rendered short stories, “Morna a Roma: ballata di Natale” (“Morna in Rome: Christmas Ballad”), the narrator uses the sound of Cabo Verde’s music and dance genre morna to convey memories of his birthplace, which the author still calls “home”. Strong as it is, his nostalgia makes the narrator indifferent to the beautiful things that Rome has to offer (35). In the mnemonic site created in the story, the narrator can travel through time and see his grandmother, an important figure in his life; she taught him how to cry, among others things. As he remembers the woman, the narrator returns home. “Home” is for him “[q]uel nido dove puoi tornare anche dopo venti anni, ma trovi sempre una festa che ti aspetta per coccolarti” (“that nest where you can return even after twenty years; where people are always excited to see you again”) (37). Alves’s observation can also be read as a critique of Italian society, which for him lacks a true sense of community. In this regard, he writes “… e sono terribilmente solo in questa città così piena di gente e così grande che anche un saluto e un sorriso devono darsi appuntamento in un luogo” (“and I am desperately lonely in this city full of people and so big that even a simple greeting and a smile must schedule an appointment if they want to meet”) (39). The narrator faces the aftermath of his own migrant experience, his cultural and emotional loss, and the quasi-natural predicament of being a stranger in Rome, a city as cold as can be, for clearly it is hardy able to give anything to its residents.

Rome remains the background of other African Italian writings. For instance, in Cristina Ali Farah’s Madre piccola [Little Mother] (2007) and Il comandante del fiume [The River’s Commander] (2014), the city is a place of cultural exchange where other Somali like the author come to terms with a hybrid life that for Farah’s characters stems from a colonial past and a migrant existence. Nora Moll suggests that while Rome is characterized as fragmented and decentered in Madre piccola (153), in Il comandante del fiume the urban space becomes part of Yabar’s experience as a Somali adolescent born in Italy.

If Calves, Ngana, and Farah privilege Rome over other metropolises, Milan is the background of Khouma’s stories. In his novel published in 2010, Noi italiani neri [We Black Italians], the main character, Paolo Diop Ravenna, is depicted in the act of defending himself in court. As the narrative goes, Paolo is randomly stopped by two ticket inspectors while he is walking in the street (an event that really happened to Khouma). They ask him to show his ticket even though he has no intention of taking the tram. Paolo refuses to obey. The inspectors brutally attack him, and even file a police complaint stating that Paolo attacked the officials for no reason. Thus, Paolo now must defend himself in front of the justices, and while explaining how things unfolded, he also describes episodes of racism and hate crimes as they occur in contemporary Italy. Khouma’s Paolo is an Italian citizen born of an Italian father; he is educated, goodhearted, and willing to defend himself and fight against racism.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, as they reclaimed their social value, African Italian authors imagined their characters speaking up to racial discrimination. Thus, Kossi Komla-Ebri (Tago) creates the neologism imbarazzismo, formed by fusing the word imbarazzo (embarrassment) and razzismo (racism), to address those peculiar situations in which, due to certain social prejudices cemented in society, Italians fail to communicate effectively with black people. In 2002, a series of cultural misunderstandings, anecdotes that Komli-Ebri personally experienced, found their way into a book titled Imbarazzismi. These “daily embarrassments,” as the author calls them, show that racism is indeed ordinary. Italians might fear “the Other,” which they hardly see for what s/he is. To illustrate this reality, the author narrates various anecdotes such as that in which, while returning a cart with a coin deposit after buying some groceries, a man handed him the cart he used. The brief narrative shows that often Italians have no idea they are racist. Indeed, the man Komli-Ebri mentions must have believed his engagement with the black person to be philanthropic: giving away his shopping cart, he allowed the individual whom he could only recognize as an immigrant to get the deposit money. Little knew the shopper that, instead of including Komli-Ebri in his world, he racially profiled him. In her preface to the 2013 edition of the book, Cécile Kyenge, then Minister of Integration in the Letta cabinet, suggests that these imbarazzismi can be avoided if one learns how to recognize them. In a video available on YouTube, Komli-Ebri states that he wrote the book to try to open a dialogue with Italians and debunk those imbarazzismi that, if not already racist, are precursors of racial hatred (“Intervista a Kossi Komla-Ebri”).

African Italian writers are reshaping Italian cultural identity. By choosing to write their texts in Italian, a language that for many of them might even be the third or fourth spoken idiom, African Italian authors reject a colonial past and start fresh. Whereas Italy, together with other European powers, attempted to colonize part of the Horn of Africa (and for this reason writers like Farah and Scego both of Somali origins are labeled “post-colonial”) and participated in the so-called “scramble for Africa”, nations like Germany, France, and England were present in Africa for much longer. To choose the Italian language over their native English or French has represented for many African Italian authors a way to project themselves into the future and break with the past. In an interview, Komli-Ebri suggests that the Italian language is an idiom that allows a rebirth of African Italian writers. According to the author of Imbarazzismi, an immigrant arrives at his/her host country like a bird with plucked feathers; when s/he can function in the Italian language, the act of communication represents a metaphorical regrowth of those lost feathers. The delicate image framed by Komli-Ebri indicates that African Italian writers are still exploring literary horizons to define their broad ethnic identity.

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Citation: Ciamparella, Anna. "African Italian literature". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 January 2019 [, accessed 27 January 2022.]

19536 African Italian literature 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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